THE INSIDE MAN

How to solve urban traffic gridlock

How to solve urban traffic gridlock image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Brent Co | posted March 13, 2015 11:59

Grid lock busting by circulatory one way systems

Busybodies?

Like in anything, even in Urban Planning, there are sins of commission and sins of omission. We would prefer to err on the "let's die trying" at the risk of looking like busybodies that must be seen to be doing something even if "it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies.

Angeles City

We've long been advocates of the circulatory-one way systems, to which U-turns and roundabouts belong. Recently, the DPWH, along with the city fathers of Angeles City and the Clark Development Corporation loped of a portion of the large park fronting the Clark Air Base gate along MacArthur highway and turned it into a giant roundabout. Thus, in one fell swoop, the perennial bottleneck at this busy junction was transformed into a free-flowing ballet of merging traffic. Let us look to the English for inspiration.

Going around round and round in circles

They say you can never be man enough to be a BS [British Standard] driver unless you've successfully navigated the Hanger Lane gyratory on the London North Circular Road. It's a huge roundabout connecting 7 roads, 2 of them dual carriageway A-roads, where lane counts increase and decrease drastically and junctions are multiple mini-roundabouts controlled by multi-phase traffic lights. Processing 10,000 vehicles an hour, 10 hours a day, this 34,000 sqm roundabout is not only the ultimate London traffic test for traffic awareness, quickie spot-gap safe-merge driving coupled with the rules-based ballet of going around mini roundabouts. So the English never met a traffic circle that they didn't like, a unique and prevailing proclivity of the average Anglo Saxon driver. Or is it just the little englander/shopkeeper or shopkeeper's daughter [pardon me, Mrs. Thatcher] prejudice?

Monument men

What we refer to is the British road engineer's quickie take-no-prisoners solution to traffic mayhem, the ubiquitous and humble roundabout. Littered through out the colonies and Commonwealth in the Middle East, Near East and the Far East, roundabouts are as British as GT [gin & tonic]. In fact, ever since EU expansion and generous road building loans that came with it, roundabouts are finding their way among the Continentals, notably Spain, France, Portugal even the spendthrift Greeks, save for Italy which seems to think that if you have to drive around in a circle, there must be monument or obelisk to commemorate something, or anything in the middle.

Translated across the Channel

Elsewhere in wine country, the roundabouts take the form of a conical pyramid or a catch basin or an F-1 circuit style gravel run-off area. Its the best way to immobilize drivers who have drunk too many at wine tastings and like any drunk, are always tempted to barrel through an intersection regardless of color of traffic light prevailing, even if there are no traffic lights to speak of. Its not unusual to find a car stalled in the middle of the rotunda, early in the morning, with the driver dozing off the excess alcohol.

English Patience

This adherence to the roundabout makes it a cure all for British junctions. Too many directions converging on an intersection? Make it a roundabout. What about staggered junctions? Make that 2 mini roundabouts. How about giant traffic circles like Quezon Memorial elliptical road? Well, the British Highway agency will make it 2 way traffic and build roundabouts on every junction that abuts some avenue or boulevard. That way, Quezon City is ripe for its own version of the Hanger Lane gyratory.

Remember the rotunda?

Our traffic planners are no strangers to the roundabout, or rotunda to those over 50. Highway 54 had many of them in the 50's. The MMDA's U-turn system is based on a rotunda's traffic flow. Though it came in all shapes and sizes – dogbone, bikini, elevated U-turn – it served its purpose. Even when the MMDA changed colors from pink/blue to green with the advent of the new administration, MMDA was still planning mini-roundabouts from Pasay to potted plant roundabouts on Ayala EDSA. Baguio City's circulatory one way systems, which liberally applies the rotunda flow of traffic has proven it works in tight mountainous confines.

Meet its match

But there is a limit to the rotunda/roundabout flow and it met its match on C-5. Put it simply, U-turns always challenge local drivers to go wheel-to-wheel like they do at NASCAR. Never mind if there is more than enough space 20-wheelers driving in tandem on these U-turn slots. The authorities surrendered and returned the traffic signals and left turns to C-5. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Katipunan C-5. There, school bound traffic has worsened overall flow, infecting Marcos Highway and Aurora Blvd. its treacle pouring pace.

TPLEx contributes to Baguio gridlock

The recent opening of portions of TPLEx rekindled Luzonians' long on again/off again love affair with Baguio City, aggravating the City of Pines' gridlock. Just last Christmas and papal visit holiday season the City Fathers already threw up their hands declaring, as they have, time and again, that downtown Baguio doesn't have enough parking space. One may suppose that, given the right incentives, steel parking buildings, like what we see in Japan, can be made into a profitable business within the CBD. Specced to resist earthquakes and probably copied in China, such strategically located buildings, allied with draconian ordinances for no-on-street-parking-tow-away zones could be a good medium term all year round solution.

Pay n' display, rejected

Twelve years ago, Baguio tried Euro-style pay and display parking meters. Very expensive units in themselves, they even had solar panels. In order not to emburden the city coffers, the Baguio city fathers out-sourced the contract to a private company which was willing to do what turned out to be culturally unthinkable. To make it worth the private company's investment, it was only fair the city fathers awarded the company a long term contract-to-operate and collect. Unfortunately, many Baguio drivers felt that free parking is an inalienable tribal right, equal to the right of local public transportation to pay no regard to pollution laws and judicial public service franchises. They sued the city administration and the private company and booted out the politicians in the next election.

Metro-Baguio circumferential road

Baguio's next problem is the traffic volume. As if the city didn't generate its own traffic, there's more coming from the outlying towns of La Trinidad, Itogon, Sablan, Tuba and Tublay. This traffic is further aggravated by other traffic on major highways going through Benguet – Halsema, Ambuklao, Naguilian, Marcos and Kennon – as all need to transit through busy Bagiuo CBD. There is a planned circumferential road and recently, the DPWH was able to finally complete the Western and Eastern sections of this ring road linking Barangay Irisan -known for Baguio's dumpsite- near Asin and Naguilian, crossing Marcos, passing through St. Louis University Bakakeng campus, crossing Kennon, connecting to Loakan, then the road just behind Texas Instruments – a popular pony ride trail - skirting the edge of Camp John Hay, to exit at Barangay Baguio Country Club. The Northern section of this circumferential route leads to Pacdal, but from there, there are still so many mountains to climb.

Adaptive circulatory one way systems

Some measure of relief arrived 12 years ago, when Baguio imposed an adaptive circulatory one-way system on Upper Session Road. After more than a decade, one can say that it is a work in progress as the city fathers continue to tinker and adjust. Which is the way it should be as we see such adaptive systems work well in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, Athens and London, putting all those new expensive LED traffic lights to shame.

Stench free zone

Despite the complaints of the public transport sector, unrepentant culprits of illegal loading and unloading on the main junctions, sabotaging and constricting traffic flow, traffic always flows, rarely stops and the stench of diesel fumes rarely pervades the air, unlike Lower Session, Harrison and Magsaysay roads with its long lines of idling traffic. At least, the City Fathers are dynamic about nurturing the system which, at best, is not static set-and-forget. From the first few trial years up to the latest version, activating the traffic lights at the junction of North Drive, Government Center Road, Gov. Pack Rd. and Upper Session Rd. was not even necessary. Today a portion of Upper Session has reverted to 2-way traffic which is a boon for the NBI office, Barrio Fiesta and the revitalized Casa Vallejo Hill Station restaurant.

Moving forward

Time is ripe for the city authorities to move on and apply the one way system to Lower Session Road, Magsaysay Ave., Harrison Rd. and Gov. Pack Road. Making Session Road one way downhill will eliminate the stench of diesel from vehicles laboring when going up hill on Session. Then Magsaysay Ave. from Session to Harrison should be turned one way in the direction of Harrison. Harrison Road from Magsaysay now becomes one way all the way to Gov. Pack Road. Gov. Pack Road should turn one way toward Session and SM and will need to lose its barricade on the junction to Session and SM. This makes this 4-road system a big counter clockwise loop of a roundabout.

Taking out the median

To make this work, the City will have to eliminate the median islands on Session, Harrison and a portion of Magsaysay. Then, they will have to channelize traffic flow so that vehicles on downhill Session Road are segregated into merging lanes for those going to Magsaysay, Shanum, Abanao, Harrison and so on, just like Liwasang Bonifacio. North Drive and Leonard Wood one way sections may need to be reversed to provide another circulatory loop going in the opposite clockwise direction in the Upper Session Road area. Doing this may necessitate reversing the one way flow of the loop around the Post office and Baguio Cathedral. The flow of nearby streets crossing Session and parallel roads in the vicinity of Burnham Park like Lake drive, Gregorio and Shanum flow may have to be adjusted after the initial effects of this rerouting are assessed.

Major remake of Session Road

The city will have to re-profile the crown of Session and Harrison after the medians are removed to make for easy and safe lane changes for merging. They would have to eliminate the median islands anyway if the proposed donation of trams or San Francisco Bay area type cable cars push through. Road illumination can be cable suspended LEDs while direction signs can be mounted on cantilevered gantries over Session Road. The serried ranks of brand new jumbo LED traffic lights on Harrison Road may have to be idled.

Stench free zone, part 2

If the city does this, it avoids the diesel fume stench that permeates the canyon of buildings on Session Road. Moreover, traffic going up and back to SM or Upper Session only start climbing uphill on upper Harrison where one side is Burnham Park. Over here, there is a ravine and plenty of greenery to absorb the diesel fumes exhausted when engines start to labor going up an incline.

Half-hearted at Ortigas CBD

Baguio's success with the one-way circulatory system brings to mind the half finished attempt of a similar system a few years ago in the Ortigas commercial complex. All it needed was some fine tuning, and the demolition of more median islands to make the one way system and traffic channeling work. But too many drivers complained, drivers who were only on the road once or twice a day. Their knowledge of what goes on cannot match a survey data recorder that watches and records the data on all the affected roads on an hour by hour basis. So instead of continuing with the system, the circulatory system was halted and bastardized resulting in one of the darkest pedestrian main thoroughfares [J. Vargas] beside the country's premier corporation, San Miguel Corp. Instead, an integrated circulatory system should be tried on the combined area of the Pioneer-Mandaluyong-Pasig-Shaw-Ortigas-Greenhills Shopping Center-and Ortigas Center.

Futile in Makati CBD

Over at Ayala Makati CBD, the Legaspi and Salcedo Village one way systems are already saturated. This leads to backlogs on the main CBD triangle bordered by Makati, Paseo de Roxas and Ayala Ave. Come rush hour, the daily afternoon manual override by the MAPSA troops have largely been futile for the past 20 years. Time and again, we have opined that a triangle, much less two with acute angles at 3 points is not the most easily maneuverable locus for any circulatory or grid city road system. Traffic planners must treat with the combined flow of the Ayala triangle with the Roxas triangle composed of Buendia, Paseo and Makati Ave as one traffic channel. Think of these paired triangles as a bow tie, smoothened out as close as possible to the ideal flow of a roundabout so that traffic avoids any crossings or conflicts. The upcoming construction of the Buendia tunnel underneath the Paseo and Makati Ave. junctions should be an opportunity to try circulatory detour routes.

Still born

Another problem with other one way systems in the country is that they still rely heavily on random traffic officer manual override of traffic light controls. Moreover, adjustments and intervention to traffic calming furniture are few and far apart, leading to the death of the one way circulatory experiment. The initial success of Ortigas Center's one way system was not followed through with further adjustments. After the initial median clearing of JL Vargas street, too many complaints stopped the further spread of one way routes.

From misperception to the fear of change

Since traffic is as inevitable as economic growth, one-way circulatory systems have proven effective in moving traffic along routes plagued by thrombosis. The best examples can be found in most British and Commonwealth cities. London, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur's systems are logical and intuitive to drive even to first timers for so long as one knows how to read a map. Unless there are major volume pattern changes, they've become largely set-and-forget. A large part of their effectivity is due to rules-based driver training, instead of the survival-of-the fittest kind of driving on our local streets.

Worth a try

Baguio City has proven that dynamically managed adaptive one way systems work. Right beside their successful Upper Session Road experiment, they have the chance to repeat their success on the rest of Session Road. That way, they can lift their number coding restrictions, which have become the a tourist trap that make ticketed drivers return, involuntarily, to the city to retrieve their confiscated licenses. By nature, adaptive circulatory systems are always a work in process, but it is this versatility that allows it the flexibility to adopt to changing parameters that a strict grid pattern controlled by endless traffic lights can only envy.